Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Arc of the Universe Bends Toward Nothing In Particular

John Gray accuses atheists of replacing god with progress:

One does not want to deny anyone the consolations of a faith, but it is obvious that the idea of progress in history is a myth created by the need for meaning ... The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society ... Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it.
At bottom, this criticism is an accusation of bad faith, that nonbelievers really believe in god but just relabel it "progress." But it so happens just such an intellectually rigorous (I would say duly skeptical) atheism exists and currently goes under the mostly-unhelpful label of "the new atheism," the recent uptick in atheistic writing and activism to which John Gray claims to be responding. It would be amusing to see John Gray stand face to face with Hitchens, Dawkins, or Harris and accuse one of them of the belief that progress (scientific or other) is destined to solve every problem facing mankind; for now, Norm Geras dispenses with Gray's straw man argument:
Of course, there is nothing in these various achievements that could not be reversed, or be undone by some catastrophe, nuclear, ecological, or other. But to have a commitment to progress does not require of us that we deny this. The commitment to progress is precisely a commitment; it embodies, not a belief in linear directionality, but a hope, a set of objectives, and some degree of willingness to try to make the world a better place.
Progress is nothing more than an aspiration, something to work for; it is not a god; it is not the name of a teleology. Advances in human flourishing happen, but may be taken away; if they are taken away, there is absolutely no guarantee of a "second coming." And the hoped-for, worked-for ends are not only various and partial but frequently at odds.

Sadly, Gray persists this way despite having been refuted in it before, as when A.C. Grayling dispatched the same straw man argument: "trying to make things better is not the same as believing that they can be made perfect ... meliorism is not perfectibilism." I would call it progress if people like John Gray stopped repeating faulty arguments, but this does not commit me to the belief that the repetitions are destined to stop.

And by the way, supposing atheists did believe in progress in a way that merits like-with-like comparisons with the way Christians believe in Jesus: wouldn't that take away the accusation that atheism entails nihilism and despair?


mikesdak said...

Progress in history (I assume this means the overall improvement in the human condition as we've stumbled through time) has been driven by people with many motivations, some religious and some not, and of the religous ones,
Christianity has a mixed record at best.
I also must quote a local Lutheran minister who once said in a sermon about not expecting earthly reward for belief "the point of faith in Christ is salvation of the soul after death". I found this refreshing because he made it so plain that religion isn't going to solve our earthly problems for us; it's up to people to run things right,whatever their beliefs.

Dale said...

Mike, that Christianity offers no answers for people here on earth is, to me, one of its most basic shortcomings. Just yesterday I saw yet another church sign saying "Jesus is the only salvation for a broken world" or words to that effect. This lets us all off the hook, right? Why try fixing anything if that's really the case? It enables fatalism and apathy.